The Toughest Man Alive… Lives in White Bear Lake

This month, Pierre Ostor—a former gunsmith who holds a patent for a grenade launcher—will host and compete in one of the most grueling sporting events in the world, the Arrowhead 135 Mile Ultramarathon, from International Falls to Tower. That is, if he manages not to kill himself first.

As gravesites go, this one is crap.

It’s right on the highway, route 136 in California, for one thing, and the dry crust of salt and rock won’t keep the body down. In a way, that’s fine, because Pierre Ostor isn’t going in the ground. He isn’t dead—not yet, despite his best efforts—and so the Field Marshal, the Rabbit, and the Old Timer—Pierre’s support crew—are debating whether to pack him into the front seat of a rented Dodge Caravan and cart him into the little town of Lone Pine.

The body is fragrant. That’s one factor to take into account. Pierre smells like an offal-and-bunion sandwich, or a Tijuana floor-show, or a guy who’s been wandering through the desert for a-day-and-a-half straight while suffering a heinous case of the runs—which turns out to be exactly the case. And in the Venusian heat, rolling down the windows is not an option.

“We could wrap you up in ice out here,” the Rabbit says.

Pierre doesn’t say yes or no, doesn’t nod or lift a finger. He’s past moving, seemingly past caring. What happens to his broken-down body is a cosmic question now. A boon for the buzzards.

To Lone Pine, then. First, though, there’s the matter of the stake with Pierre’s race number, 71, scratched on the side. The splintery pine won’t mark the place where Pierre Ostor died, but rather the precise spot where the 51-year-old’s quest to run 135 miles through Death Valley came to a miserable end.

The Rabbit bends down in a shallow gully to sink the stake into the ground…and the pointed end snaps clean off. Hilarious! In the shaggy-dog joke that is the Badwater Ultramarathon, this is the punch line.

If the self-inflicted suffering of one man is a folly, the needless agony of dozens is a mass-delusion. A cult of chumps. Heaven’s Gate with pricier Nikes. And yet every summer now since 1987, dreamers and masochists and ordinary wackos have gathered at the lowest point in North America to see who can run the fastest and sleep the least. There are 83 other competitors on the highway this year, dangerously tanned ultrarunners from 15 countries. And every few minutes, one of them is overtaking Pierre. Stumbling faster, basically. You can see them coming from a mile away. Literally. Picture a Segway creeping past a Rascal scooter at Daytona.

Unlike NASCAR, though, practically no one here collects any sponsorship. A free Coleman cooler is about the extent of it. Dean Karnazes, author of the best-selling memoir Ultramarathon Man, is what passes for a celebrity. The fastest finisher will get a Badwater T-shirt. The slowest finisher will also get a Badwater T-shirt. It’s the same T-shirt.

But right now, Pierre lies stripped and supine on one of the double beds inside Room 124 of Lone Pine’s Budget Inn, a fine hostelry if you happen to measure your budget in aluminum cans. “You should take a cold bath,” the Field Marshal says. He looks in the bathroom; there’s no tub. “Or a cold shower.”

“No, I don’t want to,” Pierre says. “I’m freezing.”

Even with the air conditioner rumbling like a cement truck, it’s a dry sauna in here. Something to do with the fact that the window is open. But heat be damned. A few minutes later Pierre burrows into the sheets, and then under the blanket, and finally beneath the Dacron comforter, which is the color of an old bloodstain and bears a floral pattern of vaguely Roman imperial design.

Pierre running through Death Valley
at the 2007 Badwater Ultramarathon

On one hand, this is not a good sign. If Pierre isn’t boiling in that cocoon, he’s at least cooking sous vide. And the race clock is ticking, ticking, ticking. See, Pierre didn’t drop out of the 2007 Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon when that stake went into the ground at mile 118. Didn’t take the cursed DNF—Did Not Finish. No, hypothetically, he could spring up out of bed, strap on his Montrail running shoes, and return to the race course where he left off. Pull up the stake and go. Hypothetically he could also walk the next 17 miles up Mount Whitney on his palms.

On the other hand, there’s something encouraging about Pierre’s refusal to get in that cold shower. To do the eminently sensible things that his crew is telling him to do.

It’s this same obstinacy that kept Pierre circling Lake Nokomis just seven weeks earlier in a race that served as a warm-up for Badwater. Circling, then circling, and then circling again, for 24-hours straight, like a gerbil on Adderall. And it’s what Pierre is counting on to propel him through the race he founded back home in Minnesota, the Arrowhead 135 Mile Ultramarathon. Pierre and his wife, Cheryl, will stage this frigid sister to Badwater on February 4 to 6, along a state trail from International Falls to Tower. As an event, it tends to makes this little trip through Death Valley seem like a fun run.

Pierre will race Arrowhead again himself—if this bed back at the edge of the desert doesn’t become his sarcophagus.

Pierre stirs; the wooden stake hasn’t gone all the way through this zombie’s heart, despite a belly swollen with water and sports drink and cold cuts. “I told them that I felt bloated,” he says, talking about his race crew—three ultrarunning buddies from back in Minnesota. “They were trying to give me the amount of stuff they would take.”

On the surface, it sounds as if Pierre is blaming his friends for all the fluids and supplements they’ve pushed on him to help counteract the gruesome environment. But what he may be turning over in his mind (or in his roiling belly) is a bigger question: Would I rather succeed on someone else’s terms, or fail my own way?

What could make a person want to undertake such a fantastically unpleasant endeavor? Fair question. Unfortunately, the only answer may be another question: Did your father give you a hand grenade when you were 4 years old and instruct you to defend the household? Pierre’s father did. He was an explosives expert in a French engineer regiment in the late 1950s and early ’60s, stationed in insurgent Algeria.

“Since [security] was already a problem,” Pierre says, “when he was at work, he wanted to make sure that we had something to defend ourselves. So we had a little can of”—Pierre searches for the English word—“concentrated milk. We put nails all the way around and explosives in the center.”

Pierre and his two brothers never had to deploy the jury-rigged explosive, but back in France its memory detonated in a teenage mind. Pierre didn’t need a copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys to get into trouble. All he needed was the dictionary, a book that didn’t just contain the word “nitroglycerin,” but told you what went into it. At the same time he was keeping a logbook of his experiments with black powder, he was also talking back in school—“I had an attitude problem,” Pierre says—“I didn’t let anyone tell me what to do.”

Pierre is genetically incapable of keeping his mouth shut. He hasn’t spoken to his older brother Yves in five years, even though he lives in California. Politics, Pierre says. The two used to be close, and there’s a Huck and Tom quality to stories from their youth. Like the time the brothers ditched their summer jobs, de-tasseling corn on a neighbor’s farm, and went on a little bike ride. An 850-kilometer ride. Pierre was 14 years old, Yves, 15. “My parents didn’t know,” Pierre says. They were off visiting family in Normandy in France’s northwest corner. Back in Avignon, in the far south, the boys had worked through July and they were supposed to stay on for August. They didn’t.

The boys traveled light, really light. “We had a jersey, a pair of shorts, and some cash,” Pierre says. At night they snuck into barns and slept beneath the hay. They both had raced bikes in junior divisions, and Yves was older, faster. So as they closed in on their destination—their grandmother’s house—the country jaunt turned into a grudge match. “The last few hours he put the hammer down,” Pierre says. “He wanted to make sure he got there first.”

Pierre was there for the grand arrival, though, in front of his mother. “When we showed up at the door she almost fainted,” Pierre says. The brothers had covered more than 525 miles in three days.

A few months later, Pierre’s father enrolled both of the boys in Eetat Tulle Issoire: military school.

If Pierre Ostor fails at Badwater, it will not be for lack of nutritional supplements. Hannibal’s elephant train scaled the Alps with fewer provisions. There are cases and cartons of Gatorade (Pierre has dibs on the Cool Blue), Zipfizz, Endura, Endurox. Every time you open a bag or a box there’s another supplement, goo, gel, powder.

How this roving GNC store is going to fit in a Dodge Caravan along with five adult males is a logistical question that would baffle the harbormaster at Rotterdam. Pierre has 47-year-old crew chief Paul Hasse—better known as the Field Marshal. He’s a planner by nature, a man who travels with a device to squeeze toothpaste from its tube most effectively.

 

When a watch alarm beeps reveille at 5:10 a.m. Monday morning—July 22, race day—the Field Marshal hits the luggage like a looter. He’s out the door of the motel room before Pierre has lifted his head off the pillow. “Unggh,” Pierre says softly, his first sentiment of the day. It’s a grunt, as if he were dead-lifting a pony. Sleeping hurts, and it hurts more the longer he sleeps. The pain gets progressively worse in the days and hours leading up to the starting line. Anxiety in the flesh. When it comes to these punishing death marches, the mind may be gullible but the body is nobody’s fool.

Only the Rabbit can still sleep like a young man, unhurried and unconscious. At 27 years old, John Storkamp is almost too young for ultrarunning. It’s a 45-year-old’s sport—a discipline to take up after your foot speed is gone. And the Rabbit’s foot speed hasn’t gone anywhere. He has thighs like telephone poles and a torso that should be headless in an antiquities shop.

At 6 a.m., the Old Timer’s garden thermometer reads 110. And yes, that’s in the shade—not that there’s going to be any shade. The temperature is so great on the road that it actually pays to wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt. An air pocket between you and the heat, that’s what you want. Last time Pierre ran Badwater—when he dropped out—he wore shorts and a T-shirt, which is precisely what you don’t want to wear, the Field Marshal will tell you. The Field Marshal was there that year, along with the Old Timer, and they watched Pierre’s appetite for the impromptu cut the legs out from under him. Running too fast, eating too little, counting on sheer orneriness to carry him through.

This year Team Ostor has a plan: a set of printouts with topographical charts and ETAs for all the race checkpoints. Data sets from Pierre’s previous Badwaters.

Pierre dons his all-white running suit, the one he’s borrowing from the Field Marshal, then hits the head one last time. Before leaving the room, he stops in front of a mirror. “I look like I escaped from an institution,” he says. Then he heads out to join the rest of the crazy people at the starting line.

Pierre has something he’d like to share. Welcome to show-and-tell at Pierre’s place, the split-level in White Bear Lake he shares with Cheryl. Pierre kneels down and pops open the latch, revealing a malevolent-looking black block. Not a gun, precisely, but a grenade launcher. It’s a fully functional prototype, minus a part or two he’s removed for safety. He made this device himself, he explains. He’s got the patents to prove it.

Pierre appraises the chambering mechanism with a probing eye, recalling the engineering obstacles. Twenty years ago, he was fabricating weapons like this one for a Miami arms exporter. His profession was different then, not just a profession but a craft. Pierre machined this weapon, every part and every piece of it, from the trigger pin to the gears that rotate the chambered rounds. Remember how you dyed the nylon stock over the stove with a box of Rit, Cheryl says. Apparently, generalissimos worry that white shows the bloodstains. Pierre made regular trips to South America back then: Honduras, Peru, Colombia, Argentina. Providing firearm solutions to the kinds of swells you’d read about in the back pages of the Iran-Contra report—that was, um, interesting work. After he moved back north and started his own business, Pierre once presented a set of his grenade-launcher prints to a table of U.S. Army weapons engineers. The unconventional guts of the gun baffled the experts, he says, a source of satisfaction for someone who’d never made it to college. “They loved it,” Pierre says of his invention.

Loved it, but didn’t buy it. Instead of going with an elegant bit of engineering, they manufactured a clumsy, practical device that would fit on the end of a machine gun. Pierre shrugs: If you expect authorities to make rotten decisions, you won’t be disappointed.

It was the same narrative he had encountered as a young man, when he was the head gunsmith in a French army regiment. That was a job worth hating. He’d graduated among the top three students in his military class and had hoped to continue in a university program at officer’s school. First, though, there was a little matter of a five-year service contract to fulfill. Five years. Five years of inspecting weapons, ordering replacement parts, notifying superior officers, lieutenants, and captains what needed to be done, all the while knowing they wouldn’t do it. “I said, ‘You don’t fix your guns, I’m not going to get a haircut,’” Pierre says. “The rules have to go both ways.”

It turns out the rules did not go both ways. He was 19 years old and he already had the best job he’d ever get. If he’d been an officer’s son himself—well, then, maybe something could have been arranged. But he wasn’t and, worse, people remembered his father: a career enlisted man who wouldn’t make nice. Another guy who didn’t understand how business got done. So Pierre made his own arrangements. By “arrangement,” read lawsuit. His contract was invalid, he argued, having been signed by a 15-year-old. And then, just like that, the army spat him out with the equivalent of an honorable discharge.

Pierre resurfaced in a familiar spot: a gunshop in the medieval city of Avignon. There, the shop’s retired proprietor—a guy who knew the city’s ruling class from fixing their bird guns—helped Pierre to get a job in a nuclear-research facility. “I was Homer Simpson!” Pierre jokes.

The work was challenging and the money was good, and a more contented soul would have made a career of it. Pierre? Before long, he was headed to St. Peter, Minnesota, following the American exchange student he’d met in an outdoor café. That was Cheryl, a self-made success story herself: a blonde half-miler and a high school valedictorian from Knife River who’d grown up in a household without a car or a phone.

While Cheryl finished her degree at Gustavus Adolphus College, Pierre moved furniture by day and crafted guns at night. An example of his handiwork from that era, an unmatched pair of flintlock dueling pistols, hangs on the south wall of the couple’s den. If the grenade launcher is an ingenious piece of industrial design, these firearms, with their hand-carving and intricate metal inlays, look an awful lot like art.

Pierre would finally abandon this 17th-century trade in the dying days of the 20th century. While Cheryl earned a master’s in international management, he sat at home with a software package and taught himself computer-assisted drafting. It was desk work, so he kept his hands busy with a cigarette. Pierre does nothing half-assedly. “Sometimes I’d have two cigarettes going at the same time,” he says.

Yet when the time came to break off this abusive relationship, Pierre picked up an even more demanding mistress. In 1995, six months after quitting smoking, he ran his first marathon.

Whenever it seems you’re about to be swept up by the grandeur of ultrarunning—the splendor of the scenery, the extremity of the challenge—that’s when a gun runs over to the side of the road to lubricate his ass with athletic ointment. “If you don’t do that,” the Field Marshal explains, returning the goo into its proper container, “you get a scab this big”—he makes a circle with his thumb and middle finger—“where the cheeks rub together. Right around the bullet hole.”

No, there’s not a lot of room for modesty out here. As the Rabbit will joke with Pierre later, back in the van, “I’ve handled your snot, your shit, your sweat, your blood.” And indeed he has, along with the rest of the crew. It’s a huge gift they’re giving of themselves: stuffing fresh ice into Pierre’s bandannas every mile, toting soiled toilet paper in Ziploc bags. This experience is about the limits of the body, and when you push it far enough, the body is going to do what it’s going to do.

The key is learning how to ignore the pain, Pierre’s crew explains. “I went to the doctor a day or two after a race, when I was peeing blood,” the Rabbit says. “He said it’s actually not that big a deal. It won’t kill you.”

It’s tempting to blame such extreme stoicism on a modern craving for novelty. The search for a knife sharp enough to cut through the numbness of our Lexapro lives. But in truth, ultrarunning fads have burned through the Western world every few decades like evangelical movements. The six-day track races of the late 19th-century gave way to the English long-hauls of the 1930s, which inspired the cross-country “transcons” of the 1960s, which gave birth to a series of now-legendary 100-milers in the 1970s. In every era, there is apparently something in a man that sees value in unadulterated hurt.

The Field Marshal smiles while he recites a little ditty about the types of blisters that made Dr. Scholl his fortune: “If the bone ain’t showing, keep on going.”

Pierre is having trouble finding the plastic bag with the pieces of his toes in it.

“You’re not going to show him that,” Cheryl says.

Pierre laughs without answering: of course he is. The toe fragments, which he has been storing on an end table beneath a stack of papers, are a souvenir from last year’s Arrowhead 135, a genuine memento mori. He passes the sandwich bag. Inside, the skin slivers appear desiccated and dark brown, not unlike the cracked shell of a filbert.

In an odd way, the toe bag helped insulate Pierre from scattered complaints that last year’s Arrowhead was too dangerous. He’s not just the president of the frostbite club; he’s a client! Not a lot of finishers last year in this one. You can try it on foot, on skis, or on bike, which is a bit like giving someone the choice between watching George W. Bush’s last seven State of the Union addresses or reading Bill Clinton’s Whitewater testimony.

A team of buoyant Brazilians from Badwater, who seem to regard Pierre as something of an idol, turned up in Minnesota last winter with snowmobile suits and heavy steel sleds for their gear. Rumor has it they’d never seen snow. At starting time, the temperature in I-Falls was 29 below zero. A race official yanked the Brazilians off the course for their own good after just eight miles.

They got off easier than poor David Heitkamp, whose cornea froze open, blinding him with brilliant prisms of light. Through his good eye, the 57-year-old accountant spied a beautiful naked woman on the trail. With the benefit of hindsight, Heitkamp concedes there were no ice nymphs in the North Country that day. He doesn’t blame Pierre for organizing such a punishing race, though—far from it—which is particularly sporting because he left the better part of three blackened toes in an operating room.

Believe it or not, Jack Frostbite gobbling on your nose is good publicity in the world of ultrarunning. The Arrowhead 135 is a nonprofit, which is another way of saying that the Ostors lose money on it. (Local bike peddlers County Cycles, Surly, and Park Tool—where Pierre works as an engineer—dole out a small complement of freebies.) Pierre and Cheryl say that the race enrollment is up to 56, the greatest number in its four-year history. The crew of Brazilians is back, God help them, along with masochists from eight other countries.

 

In the face of last year’s difficulties, Pierre remains a stern advocate for self-sufficiency. “The more people you put out there,” Pierre says about safety teams, “the more [racers] rely on them to get them out of trouble.”

Pierre has had his own little mortality moments during races. Take the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It’s an 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome that covers the same hairy tundra the dog race follows…without the luxury of the dogs. Pierre will attempt this solo suffer-fest again on bike, just two weeks after he runs Arrowhead in February. He recounts the time up in Alaska near the Rainy Pass, in the 1999 race, when snow soaked through his two sets of clothing, his rubber reservoir of melted snow leaked, and he ran out of food. That’s around when Pierre started hallucinating, hearing the sound of phantom snowmobiles riding to his rescue. By the time a pair of brothers—seasoned Alaskans—finally tromped past his tent, Pierre would have followed a polar bear. “It was funny,” Pierre says—funny to the extent that he’s still alive to tell the tale—“because they had little bags of caribou sausage. Sometimes [they] would turn around and throw me a link like I was a dog.”

These experiences teach you how to adapt, Pierre says. Like the year he broke off a crown on a frozen Clif Bar, and the jagged parts of his tooth kept slicing open his tongue. Swallowing your own blood while you’re biking through knee-deep snow—that’s a taste treat. So he molded a new crown out of candle wax.

This is the type of exploit that earned Pierre entry into the ultrarunning club called the Minnesota Dog Pack. His real family, he calls them. The group photo over the fireplace? That’s the Dogs. Pierre’s nickname is Frog Dog—the French thing. If you forget, you can find the words tattooed over the tricolor on his left calf.

But the uncomfortable truth is that for a running club, a lot of these guys aren’t running much anymore. Some are barely walking. Charlie, for instance? The rangy chap in the back, a 50K winner, 19 times in a row? “He’s done,” Pierre says, pelvis troubles, bone damage. The doctors say it may be a nerve thing. Jeff VandenBusch has an arthritic hip, a replacement in waiting.

The Old Dog, a.k.a. Old Timer from the Badwater crew, Ed Dallmann, he’s in the photo, too. Ed left work six years ago after decades at Xcel, with plans to spend his days on the trail. He’s healthy enough, but with 63 years and 50,000 miles on their odometer, his legs declared their own early retirement.

Rationally, Pierre knows what’s ahead. “I don’t have too many years left” to reach Nome, he says. He’s 51 now, “and until, like, 55, I have a chance to make it. After that it would be very difficult.”

When Pierre uses the word difficult, what he means is impossible.

Joe Frazier, the great Philly heavyweight, once said, “Kill the body and the head will follow.” In running, you start with the feet, then move north. At 7:15 Tuesday morning, 24 hours after he started running Badwater, Pierre drops down onto a cooler next to the van, pulls off his socks, and surveys the damage. The skin looks pickled and puffy, like the feet of someone who tried coal-walking without first getting instructions from Anthony Robbins.

The Field Marshal pulls out a special foot-care kit in a clear plastic case—somewhere in the van, there must be a snakebite kit, a Komodo dragon—attack kit. Soon, he’s lancing blisters, applying tape, performing ablutions. He’s a lay podiatrist crossed with a faith healer. Pierre groans in pain.

At the Arrowhead 135 Mile
Ultramarathon—the frigid sister
race to Badwater Pierre
founded in 2005.

Although at one point he’d been a full six hours ahead of his best Badwater pace, Pierre’s race finally falls apart on the far shore of Owens Lake. Or what was Owens Lake before the city of Los Angeles made off with all the water (think Chinatown), turning the area into an endless alkaline dust storm. There’s more dust this moment, swirling in a cone 100 meters into the sky, shooting across the road like buckshot, stinging the skin on contact.

The Field Marshal and the Rabbit think Pierre should try running again. Once he sees Mount Whitney, they say, the finish line will practically reel him in. But Pierre either won’t or can’t run. At some point in these vision quests, the two become indistinguishable. And that’s when the head is gone.

A few hours later, Pierre is sitting in the parking lot of the Budget Inn, slumped down in the front seat of the Caravan. The crew has hopped out of the van to prepare the room. The time for panaceas and pep talks has passed.

If Pierre was isolated out on the highway, now he’s really alone. He buries his face in his tumid hands—whether to hold up his head or conceal his face, who knows. For the first time in five minutes, Pierre speaks. “Maybe I’m getting too old for this shit.”

The story could end here. Does it matter if Pierre manages to rouse himself from his bottomless slumber? Why should the last 17 miles count for more than the first 118? In that longest of footraces, after all, we’re all going to DNF.

But something Pierre said a fortnight before Badwater may cast a little light into the shade of that cell. He was sitting on the couch next to Cheryl back at home, talking about the Dogs. What would Pierre do if he couldn’t compete: say, if a knee went out? “I could still compete,” Pierre said. He paused then, to laugh at the absurdity of this assertion. “He’d find a way,” Cheryl said.

Pierre recounted a TV show that he’d happened across the other night. A man had lost one leg to an accident. When the other knee caused him problems, Pierre recalled, “He made the decision himself to get it cut off. And now he got two artificial legs and he’s running marathons!”

As an engineering feat, this impressed Pierre. It’s amazing, he said, the way a carbon-fiber spring can absorb the shocks. Why couldn’t he try elective amputation himself, Pierre wondered aloud. That would keep him on the trail. “Actually,” Pierre said, “it might be even smoother running.” Cutting off my leg could make me faster!

So let’s go back to Room 124, where the Field Marshal is surveying the scene, listening to another moot debate about electrolytes, sizing up Pierre, who remains in bed. “Could you leave me and Pierre alone to talk for a minute?” he says.

To the east lies the broken stake, still stuck in the ground; to the west stands the mountain. Five minutes later, the door opens.

To find out how Pierre Ostor did in the 2007 Kiehl’s Badwater Ultramarathon, or to see race results from the Arrowhead 135, go to www.arrowheadultra.com/results.htm


Michael Tortorello is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.

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